Having watched the world leaders applauding at the opening of the Olympic games in Sochi, and witnessing the amount of money the sponsors have poured into Putin’s capricious project, one may wonder about the real price that Russia had to pay for this adventure. Much criticism has surrounded these past Olympics, or more precisely their host country. The media has covered in detail the world’s protests on the dreadful LGBT rights[1] of Russia, but all the uproar is missing a critical point. In fact, focusing the worlds’ protests on the LGBT rights plays directly into Putin’s hands.

The reality is far more complex than the rainbow flags, which were waved around by protestors worldwide, whose claim was to express their dissatisfaction with the way Russian authorities treat the LGBT community. Unfortunately the tragic state of the LGBT rights situation in Russia is only a minor symptom, covering up a much deeper and serious problem that causes misery for hundreds of thousands of people, regardless of their sexual orientation. Fighting for the rights of one group, while disregarding the rest, may sometimes do more damage than good. In fact, many in Russia claim that the whole LGBT issue was blown out of proportion by Putin’s people, who have used homophobia as a powerful political tool to distract the world from focusing on the real core of the problem – a complete and utter disregard for any human rights at all. Judging by the media’s coverage over the past month, it succeeded beyond expectations.

CORRUPTION - A LOT OF CORRUPTION

The world’s attention focused almost entirely around the LGBT issues, the mainstream media daily feeding its readers stories on the terrible realities of the gay communities in Russia, yet choosing to ignore thousands of other tragedies surrounding the most expensive Olympic games in history. 51 billion USD were spent on preparations for the games. At the same time, millions of old and sick people live on less than 300 USD per month, suffering from malnutrition and lack of access to expensive private health care. Life quality and expectancy of the elderly in Russia is in fact lower than in India. Social welfare or heating during the long Russian winters is just for the privileged and lucky few, and simply non-existent outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

One might at least think that the enormous investments would create the most luxurious Olympic village in history, however, reading the post and tweets of journalists over the past few weeks, this is far from true. Were did the money go? There seems to be only one answer to that – corruption. Experts estimate that in fact, less than half of the 51 billion USD was spent on actual preparation work, the rest went straight to officials’ pockets. The lavish contracts for the infrastructure work were awarded without any tender, to a selected few businessmen and officials, resulting in a tripling (or more!) of the actual cost of work. To demonstrate the ridiculousness of the situation, one of the interviewees in the documentary “Putin’s Games”, estimates that the cost of the contract for a 70 kilometre road built for the games would be enough to cover the entire surface of the road in pure gold - and he is not joking.

SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS

But it is not just money being wasted: as part of the preparation “effort”, thousands of small businesses were violently confiscated by the state. Unlimited authority was granted to do whatever appropriate in Sochi, in the name of preparing for this national effort.

The “Zero waste” Olympic game policy also did not turn out as expected to anyone who walks through Sochi. Poorly constructed landfills can be seen all around town, contaminating the water and soil around the entire area. Some areas are experiencing such high levels of pollution from irresponsibly constructed waste sites and landfills that the people there are forced to leave their houses and flee. The provision of substitute housing by the government is out of the question. In fact, part of the Olympic “effort” also included evicting over 5,000 people from their properties, often under the threat of arrest and violence for those who object. That is how families who previously had a decent living and housing found themselves thrown under the rushing train of the Olympic games construction, and became subject to extreme poverty. The profoundly devastating effort of Putin’s administration to create the most memorable games in history surely will not be forgotten by these families.

The environmental disaster that the construction and infrastructure for the games caused to the area will affect the local communities and ecosystems for decades after the Olympic delegations have left. The previously mentioned ground and water contaminations are just the tip of the iceberg in a long line of planning and construction omissions. If you are familiar with Russian geography, you will know that Sochi is the warmest place in Russia, in fact one of the few snowless places in February in Russia. But nature will not stop Putin from bringing the world to his favourite summerhouse. The construction and preparation work for the Olympic facilities in the mountains around Sochi completely destroyed the fragile ecosystem in this World Heritage and UNESCO protected national park, leading to massive deforestation and biodiversity loss.

But how was that legally possible? Well, Putin's administration removed barriers such as the national conservation laws by simply revoking their existence. In the past five years, the Russian parliament revoked major laws including the compulsory environmental assessment for construction projects. The implication of such actions endangers the environment not only in Sochi, but throughout the entire country.

The insistence of Putin’s officials to break both international and national conservation and protection laws forced the WWF out of the planning committee, and local opponents to this demolition of nature into jail or exile.

CRITICISM NOT PERMITTED

The most recent example to the state of freedom of speech in Russia and the intolerance towards any sort of criticism is the arrest of environmental activists. One of them, Yevgeny Vitishko, a geologist and member of Environmental Watch, was voicing his criticism over the negligence of environmental affairs around the construction work and the long term damage such negligence will cause. He was previously detained as a warning, but refused to keep his mouth shut and stuck to his goal of voicing the hazard threatening the entire area. He was scheduled to present his scientific findings at a conference in Sochi on the same week as the opening of the Olympics. He was arrested few days earlier, on the charges of swearing in public. Apparently, in Russia that is a serious crime. Later that week he was sentenced to 3 years in penal colony.

In order to shed some light on what a penal colony entails in Russia, you can read the letter written by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot who spent over a year in one of Putin’s penalty colonies. The description of the jailing conditions described in her letter carries strong resemblance to the Holocaust survivors testimonies about their times in Hitler’s concentration camps – torture, abuse, starvation and humiliation are part of the daily routine. It is unlikely that the conditions awaiting Vitishko for the next three years will be any different. Reading the letter, it’s hard to believe that this story isn’t taken from the history books. But no, this is Russia. Today. The same place where the world celebrates the human spirit and body, all celebration sponsored by the most renowned Western corporations.

LACK OF THE BIG PICTURE

The financial and political support given to Russia over the Olympic games raise some serious questions. Very few people seem to be bothered by the political, social, environmental and human rights issues discussed above, and the only mass-resistance surrounded the LGBT issues. As previously mentioned, this was exactly how Putin prefers it. The “gay propaganda law” was nothing but a very well timed PR campaign aimed to reduce both internal and external demand for accountability and responsibility. Putin’s people rely on the Russians’ long-standing intolerance towards minority groups, to know that state-organized homophobia will spark the wave of violence and hatred needed to distract the Russian population from the economic stagnation, rising corruption, social injustice, and growing poverty in rural areas. Such claims gain significance from the fact that anti-gay legislation is a new trend in Russia, after over a decade of ignoring the issue.

Obviously the LGBT community ought to have equal rights and be protected in Russia (and elsewhere), but fighting for the rights of only one group, while ignoring the injustice and violation of other groups and rights creates horrific double standards, and undermines the meaningfulness of the discourse. The inability of the West to see beyond the colorful rainbow flags of the LGBT protests, and to focus on the core of Russia’s human rights violations, contributes to the double tragedy – of the gay community who pays the price of the attention, and of those whose rights are being ignored.

With the end of the Olympic games two weeks ago the final medal count shows many winners, but there are many more losers than the medal count could ever display – democracy, human rights, and global social integrity. This has meant a colossal compromise of the weakest and the poorest, all so that the world could celebrate the privileged few.

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[1] LGBT rights refer to the rights affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.